Steep Canyon Rangers : Morning Shift Review
Morning Shift: A Timeless Odyssey through Bluegrass with the Steep Canyon Rangers
The Steep Canyon Rangers brings us the vibrant hues of bluegrass, woven with tones of history, personal tales, and musical mastery. Morning Shift, the latest offering from the seasoned ensemble, is nothing short of a musical journey. Each track, elegantly constructed and artfully performed, reflects the band’s profound understanding of their craft and place within the genre’s storied tradition. But let’s dive deep into this album that serves as a chronicle of the human spirit, transcending time and space.
The Steep Canyon Rangers are made up of Graham Sharp on banjo and vocals, Mike Guggino on mandolin/mandola and vocals, Aaron Burdett on guitar and vocals, Nicky Sanders on fiddle and vocals, Mike Ashworth on drums, dobro, guitar, and vocals, and Barrett Smith on bass, guitar, and vocals. Over the band’s esteemed career, the three-time Grammy nominees have released 14 studio albums, three collaborative albums with actor and banjoist Steve Martin, been inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, and appeared on some of music’s biggest stages. In 2013, Nobody Knows You won the GRAMMY Award for Best Bluegrass Album, while 2012’s Rare Bird and 2020’s North Carolina Songbook garnered nominations in the same category.
Morning Shift was shaped through collaboration. With Darrell Scott at the production helm and Dave Sinko capturing the Rangers’ essence, this album was brought to life at the historic Inn Bat Cave in North Carolina. Post-recording saw Richard Dodd masterfully refining each track, with the final album being preserved on vinyl, meticulously pressed at Citizen Vinyl in Asheville, NC.
“Hominy Valley“ begins our journey with a rhythmic dance, reminiscent of tales told around campfires under Carolina skies. Graham Sharp’s adept storytelling of historical narratives intermingled with present-day undertones is simply haunting. It evokes a sense of nostalgia, a yearning for an understanding of our roots, while the banjo keeps our feet tapping and hearts alive. Don’t you feel the echo of the past meeting the pulse of today?
And then there’s “Deep End“ – a vibrant tribute to spontaneity and adventure. One can almost see Burdett, fresh into the Rangers’ fold, leaping into new experiences, his vocals guiding us through an exhilarating escapade of life’s unexpected twists as the ensemble expertly picks, bows, and plucks the story’s setting around him. Sharps’ banjo part is driving and keeps the energy high.
The sultry narrative of “Junior (Second in Line)” offers a raw, unfiltered glance into the murky waters of entitlement. The song’s swamp-like rhythm cradles the listener, providing a disconcerting embrace. It’s edgy and, dare I say, unsettling in the most captivating way possible. You can feel the sliminess, can’t you? By the way, Sanders’ violin solo is excellent.
An instrumental interlude, the trio of “Old Stone House/Handlebars/Chimney Rock,” is a moment to enjoy the band’s instrumental skills and rhythmic clarity. The band’s instrumental skills and improvisations are in line with the bluegrass tradition, while still maintaining their unique take on the genre’s evolution. It’s a musical journey, from the comfort of nostalgia in the old stone house to the spirited adventures of handlebars, culminating in the towering grandeur of Chimney Rock. Doesn’t it paint a vivid picture of the American landscape?
The narrative expression continues with “Harvest Queen.” With its tender strings and heartwarming lyrics, it’s like sipping a cup of hot tea on a chilly Appalachian morning, reflecting upon love and life.
Glasgow, a city with its own rich tapestry of history and music, finds its homage in “Ghost of Glasgow.” It’s a nostalgic nod, a bridge across the Atlantic, a tale of familial bonds that stretch beyond geographies. Scott’s pedal steel playing and solo is spot-on. Can you hear the echoes of the Scottish highlands?
Bridging the bluesy rhythms of the South and the heartfelt narratives of bluegrass, “Alabama Calling” feels like a road trip through the heart of America. The vocal harmonies show the wide range of the band; just listen to the high and low notes in the vocal harmonies. It’s the sound of wheels on a dusty road, of memories formed in fleeting moments. Can you feel the sun on your face, the wind in your hair?
The title track, “Morning Shift,” with its relatable lyrics and infectious melody, is a nod to the everyday, a salute to the grind, the hustle, the mundane, and the magical. It’s like the first rays of the morning sun, illuminating our daily lives and reminding us of the beauty in the routine. Can you relate?
Closing with the cover of Robbie Fulks’ “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals” was an inspired choice. The rendition, tinged with the Rangers’ signature flair, feels like a heartfelt goodbye, a bittersweet adieu to a place and time beloved to many. And “Recommend Me”? It’s like a gentle sigh at the end of a long day, contemplative, hopeful, and looking forward to new beginnings.
Morning Shift is an album that sounds of experiences. It’s an ode to the past, a toast to the present, and a beacon for the future. It’s a work grounded in tradition yet soaring in its creativity. With their seasoned expertise and innovative spirit, Steep Canyon Rangers have created a timeless set of songs. So the next time you find yourself at the crossroads of musical genres, won’t you let Morning Shift be your guide?
Steep Canyon Rangers
September 8, 2023